WASHINGTON — This year, as President Obama walked up the aisle of the chamber of the House of Representatives in the U.S. Capitol, rumors swirled about how he would address taxes, the economy and energy. Foreign policy was not mentioned frequently. In his address, foreign policy was given a small fraction of time and was vague and self-congratulatory. Some of the most important foreign policy comments were those omitted, not the ones mentioned.
Foreign policy has become a stickier situation for the President over his six years as Commander in Chief. In just the last year, civil conflicts, militant extremist groups, disease and economic crises in Western Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Russia and Asia have caused global disruptions and have disoriented foreign policy makers.
In some of his first words, the President mentioned the end of the combat mission in Afghanistan. He also reminded viewers that he is responsible for the end of the Iraqi combat mission. With the end of these two conflicts, the U.S. is officially not a country at war any longer, noted by the President when he said that “the shadow of crisis has passed.” However, Afghanistan may not see the shadow as being passed. With 15,000 foreign troops in the country, ISIL making advances on its border, security forces unprepared to fight the resurgence of the Taliban and other militants and a poverty rate well above 35 percent, the shadow of crisis may still be incredibly present.
Syria and Iraq
The President mentioned Syria and Iraq together under the banner of fighting ISIL, stating that “American leadership – including our military power – is stopping ISIL’s advance.” The President skimmed over the slightly murky details of America’s involvement in the conflict. He made it clear that he thinks being dragged into another costly, complicated ground war will not be an option.
He then called on Congress to pass a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL. President Obama has opponents and supporters on both sides of the aisle for this resolution. Many Republicans in Congress, as well as quite a few Democrats, have complained that the President has not asked for authorization in the fight against ISIL. The President has made complaints that Congress has not worked quickly enough to authorize the use of force. Both sides, however, win political points and practical advantages when blaming each other for the stalemate while simultaneously taking little action.
The humanitarian crisis that the Syrian civil war and ISIL advances in Iraq and Syria have caused is growing every day. Refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), especially in Syria, are facing lower levels of international aid. Thousands of people, especially women, in ISIL-controlled areas in Syria and Iraq face the daily threat of terror.
In his comments about Russia, the President stated that the United States is “upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small,” referring to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He claimed that Russia is isolated, implying that economic sanctions were enough to deter Russian aggression.
The ramifications of an “economy in tatters” does move past the Kremlin and the general Russian population is smarting from the last round of escalating sanctions. The Russian economy is projected to fall into deep recession this year, due to both falling oil prices and Western sanctions. While the Russian government just announced a $21 billion anti-crisis plan, economic hardships are almost guaranteed to hit the lower- and middle-class Russians as much as the political and business elite to which they are targeted.
In his remarks on Iran, the President spoke of diplomacy that has “halted the progress of its [Iran’s] nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material.” He made it extremely clear that he will veto any escalation of economic sanctions on Iran. Talks between Iran and the P5+1 are ongoing and have a June 30 deadline. With previous talks failing to reach an agreement, there are lower but still hopeful expectations for the successful conclusion of this round. There is a substantial opposition presence from both Republicans and Democrats who have proposed two separate pieces of legislation opposed by the Obama Administration. One of those imposes automatic new sanctions if there is no deal for Tehran’s nuclear program.
Maybe one of his biggest foreign policy decisions, President Obama recently reopened diplomatic relations with Cuba after half a century of complete economic and diplomatic isolation. His desire to lift the embargo completely requires Congressional approval and is likely to face stiff opposition from some in the House and Senate. However, there are a lot of congresspeople on his side. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) said earlier this month that “this is a policy … that has not yielded the result we had hoped it would yield, obviously. I think that’s pretty apparent.”
Palestine and Israel
In his last two State of the Union Addresses, President Obama has discussed the Palestine-Israeli conflict and peace process. This year, however, there was no mention of either. The situation between Palestine and Israel has gotten even rockier in the past couple of weeks after Palestine announced it would be joining the International Criminal Court to pursue war crime charges against Israel. In retaliation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu withheld millions of dollars in tax revenue collected on behalf of the Palestinians by the Israelis.
While the President did mention Syria, ISIL and American airstrikes, he did not mention the extremely complicated situation on the ground among Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, moderate Syrian rebels the U.S. plans on training and arming, ISIL and other extremist groups and the Kurds. Even though the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people and has been accused of committing other war crimes, it seems that the regime has temporarily become an unlikely and uneasy quasi-ally in the fight against ISIL.
Boko Haram is a militant Islamist separatist group based in northeastern Nigeria. The group aims to create an Islamic caliphate under Sharia law in the northern regions of Nigeria. In 2013, the U.S. State Department designated the group as a foreign terrorist organization. Estimates put refugees and displaced people at upwards of 700,000 people because of violence in northern Nigeria. Violence has only escalated in the past year and a half. Boko Haram’s tactics include mass kidnappings and killings, razing towns and small cities, public executions, chainsaw beheadings and car bombings. The fear that Boko Haram has created has led to a huge humanitarian crisis across the region, with little formal international intervention.
– Caitlin Huber